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German pilot in WWII spared an American B-17 pilot over Germany only to reunite 40 years later and become fishing buddies

The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.

The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.

The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters, and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns.

But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He nodded at Brown instead. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II. Years later, Brown would track down his would-be executioner for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.

Living by the code

People love to hear war stories about great generals or crack troops such as Seal Team 6, the Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden. But there is another side of war that’s seldom explored: Why do some soldiers risk their lives to save their enemies and, in some cases, develop a deep bond with them that outlives war?

And are such acts of chivalry obsolete in an age of drone strikes and terrorism?

Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other.

Those are the kinds of questions Brown’s story raises. His encounter with the German fighter pilot is beautifully told in a New York Times best-selling book, “A Higher Call.” The book explains how that aerial encounter reverberated in both men’s lives for more than 50 years.

“The war left them in turmoil,” says Adam Makos, who wrote the book with Larry Alexander. “When they found each other, they found peace.”

Their story is extraordinary, but it’s not unique. Union and Confederate troops risked their lives to aid one another during the Civil War. British and German troops gathered for post-war reunions; some even vacationed together after World War II. One renowned American general traveled back to Vietnam to meet the man who almost wiped out his battalion, and the two men hugged and prayed together.

What is this bond that surfaces between enemies during and after battle?

It’s called the warrior’s code, say soldiers and military scholars. It’s shaped cultures as diverse as the Vikings, the Samurai, the Romans and Native Americans, says Shannon E. French, author of “Code of the Warrior.”

The code is designed to protect the victor, as well as the vanquished, French says.

“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.”

The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters. Butchering civilians, torturing prisoners, desecrating the enemies’ bodies — are all battlefield behaviors that erode a soldier’s humanity, French says.

The code is ancient as civilization itself. In Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” the Greek hero Achilles breaks the code when his thirst for vengeance leads him to desecrate the body of his slain foe, the Trojan hero Hector.

“There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to completely lose your humanity.”Most warrior cultures share one belief, French says:


The code is still needed today, French says.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have seen, and have done, things that are unfathomable.

A study of Vietnam veterans showed that those who felt as if they had participated in dishonorable behavior during the war or saw the Vietnamese as subhuman experienced more post-traumatic stress disorder, French says.

Drone warfare represents a new threat to soldiers’ humanity, French says.

The Pentagon recently announced it would award a new Distinguished Warfare Medal to soldiers who operate drones and launch cyberattacks. The medal would rank above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, two medals earned in combat.

At least 17,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the medal. The petition says awarding medals to soldiers who wage war via remote control was an “injustice” to those who risked their lives in combat.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the new medal at a February news conference.

“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought,” Panetta says. “And they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”

Still, critics ask, is there any honor in killing an enemy by remote control?

French isn’t so sure.

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game,” she says. “I’m taking a risk so it feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance — it can make them doubt. Am I truly honorable?”

The German pilot who took mercy

Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.

Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.

Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and were bombing his country’s cities.


Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.

As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.

He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.

Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.

Franz Stigler wondered for years what happened to the American pilot he encountered in combat.

Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.

Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe. He had once studied to be a priest.

A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed.

Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him:

“You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”

Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

What creates the bond between enemies?

Stigler was able to recognize the common humanity of the enemy when he locked eyes with Brown. It caused him to take mercy.

That sudden recognition can spring from many sources in battle — hearing the moans of a wounded enemy; sharing a common language; or opening the wallet of an enemy and seeing pictures of his wife and children.

That respect for the enemy’s humanity typically starts at the top, some scholars say. A leader sets the tone, and the troops get the message. A military leader who embodied this approach was one of Germany’s greatest World War II commanders, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, also known as the “Desert Fox.”

One time, a group of British commandos tried to sneak behind enemy lines and assassinate Rommel in the North African desert. They failed. But Rommel insisted the commandos be buried in the same graveyard as the German soldiers who died defending him, says Steven Pressfield, author of “Killing Rommel.”

There were battle zones during World War II where that type of magnanimity was almost impossible. On the Eastern Front, German and Russian soldiers literally hated one another. And in the South Pacific, U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers took no prisoners.

At times, the terrain can force soldiers to follow the code. The North African desert during World War II was one such place, Pressfield says.

Fortunes turned quickly because so many battles were fought by fast-moving tanks and mobile units. A German unit that captured British soldiers could end up surrendering to them minutes later because the battle lines were so fluid. Also, the desert sun was so harsh that both sides knew if they left enemy prisoners stranded or mistreated, they would quickly die, Pressfield says.

Some British and German soldiers never forgot how their enemy treated them and staged reunions after the war.It was not unusual for German and British doctors to work together while taking care of wounded soldiers from both sides, Pressfield says.

“The Germans and the British used to get together for soccer matches,” Pressfield says. “It was the Desert Foxes versus the Desert Rats.”

These soldiers weren’t just engaging in nostalgia. They shared a sense of hardship. They had survived an ordeal that most people could not understand.

“In many ways, a soldier feels more of a bond with the enemy they’re fighting than with the countrymen back home,” Pressfield says. “The enemy they’re fighting is equally risking death.”

That bond could even lead to acts of loyalty after the war, says Daniel Rolph, author of “My Brother’s Keepers.”

Once, when a Union officer mortally wounded a Confederate captain during the Civil War, the Union man sang hymns and prayed with his enemy as the man took his last breaths. Before the captain died, he asked the Union officer to return his sword and revolver to his family — a request the soldier honored after the war ended, Rolph says.

“I even have an article from The New York Times in 1886 where Union soldiers who were on the pension rolls of the federal government were actually trying to transfer their money toward Confederate soldiers,” Rolph says.

These bonds can even form between enemies who do not share a language or a culture.

Harold Moore Jr. was a U.S. Army colonel who led a desperate fight depicted in the 2002 Mel Gibson film, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young. ” In 1965, Moore lost 79 of his men fighting against a larger North Vietnamese force. It was one of the first major battles in the Vietnam War.

In 1993, Moore led some of his soldiers back to Vietnam to meet their former adversaries on the same battlefield. When they arrived, Moore met the Vietnamese officer who led troops against him, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An.

Charles Brown, with his wife, Jackie (left), found peace after his reunion with Franz Stigler, with his wife, Hiya.

An held out his arms and greeted Moore by kissing him on both cheeks. Moore gave him his wristwatch as a token of friendship.

Moore described in an essay what happened next:

“I invited all to form a circle with arms extended around each other’s shoulders and we bowed our heads. With prayer and tears, we openly shared our painful memories.”

An died two years after meeting Moore. Moore traveled to Vietnam to pay his respects to his former enemy’s family. While visiting their home, Moore spotted a familiar object displayed in the viewing case of An’s family shrine: It was his wristwatch.

A reunion of enemies

As he watched the German fighter peel away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t thinking of the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.

He flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.

Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida.

Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.

Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life?

On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read:He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England. He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.

(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown.
(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown.

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?”

It was Stigler. He had had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. He became a prosperous businessman. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.

“My God, it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.

Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: “To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate.”

The two pilots would meet again, but this time in the lobby of a Florida hotel.

One of Brown’s friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.

The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English:

“I love you, Charlie.”

Years later, author Makos says he understands why Stigler experienced such a surge of emotions.

Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived, Makos says.

“The war cost him everything,” Makos says. “Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of.”

The meeting helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter, Dawn Warner.

They met as enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles Brown, ended up as fishing buddies.

Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.

Brown’s daughter says her father would worry about Stigler’s health and constantly check in on him.

“It wasn’t just for show,” she says. “They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week.”

As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says:

“The nightmares went away.”

Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he showed the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honor.

During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived — children, grandchildren, relatives — because of Stigler’s act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his seat of honor.

“Everybody was crying, not just him,” Warner says.

Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then something more.

Makos discovered what that was by accident while spending a night at Brown’s house. He was poking through Brown’s library when he came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.

Makos opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Brown:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,


“It could be said, I think, that we all try to choose peace, but that many move further and further away from it by evasion of the struggles and necessary conflicts of the human journey. What the one on the way to hell chooses all the time is peace for himself; rejection of everybody else except his own ego… The point about peace is that the true peace does not come until one has accepted boundaries and conflict–to the bitter end. That’s what the whole Christian story is about. That’s what the cross is.”

–Helen M. Luke from “Letting Go: A Conversation with Helen M. Luke,” PARABOLA, Volume 10, Number 1: Wholeness
To read the rest of this interview, purchase this issue:

Helen M. Luke was a Jungian counselor, writer, and frequent contributor to Parabola Magazine over the years.

Art Credit: Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (Danish, 1863 – 1958), “Sun Over Southern Mountains,” 1902

 Helen M. Luke was a Jungian counselor, writer, and frequent contributor to Parabola Magazine over the years.

Jimmy Carter:  Ukraine, Israel and addressing injustices faced by women around the world



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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a conversation with former President Jimmy Carter.

His newest book is “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.”

I spoke with him late today about the commitment by him and the Carter Center to fight discrimination and violence against women and girls around the world. That followed our talk about current news developments.

President Jimmy Carter, thank you very much for joining us.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Judy, it’s good to be with you again. Thank you for letting me come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you’re here to talk about your book. And we are going to talk about that, but, first, just a few questions about what’s in the news, starting about Ukraine.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you believe that President Putin and Russians are paying enough of a price for going in and taking Crimea?

JIMMY CARTER: Judy, I never have thought that anything could have deterred Putin from taking over Crimea.

No matter what the Western world had done, he would still have done this, because Russians have always considered Crimea to be part of theirs. And, as you know, a majority of the Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia, so that was inevitable.

But I think now he has to be stopped and prevented from taking any further military action. And I don’t really think he’s going to. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he’s going to. I watched his speech very carefully.

And I think he’s going to seduce the Eastern Ukrainians who speak Russian about how attractive Russia is by banishments and loans and grants and trade concessions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don’t think any further punishment for taking Crimea should happen?

JIMMY CARTER: I don’t think so. But I think, if he escalates, then yes, but, at this point, I don’t think so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What if he does though go into another country, what should happen there?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I don’t want to tell people what to do who are in office now, know more than I do about it, but I remember what happened when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in — Christmas Day, 1979.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you were president.


Well, I was very forceful, because I saw the danger of them going further. And that’s similar to what it is now. And I sent Brezhnev a direct message that if you go any further, we will take military action, and we will not exclude any weapons that we have. And I almost broke diplomatic relations. Through my ambassador, I declared an embargo against him.

And I began to arm the freedom fighters in Afghanistan who were repelling the Soviet troops. So, I took a lot of bold and very aggressive actions, some of which I think would be excessive now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excessive? So…

JIMMY CARTER: I think so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … shouldn’t — should not happen today?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think we — it is perfectly legitimate, in fact, I think it would justified to arm the Ukrainian military effectively and let everybody know that they’re being armed, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me — there’s a whole lot to talk about with Ukraine, but there are a number of other things I want to ask you about.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You — so much of your presidency was devoted to making peace in the Middle East.

You of course were responsible, you and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, for the Camp David peace accords. A number of presidents have tried to do more since then. Right now, Secretary of State John Kerry very focused on that area. Do you think he’s making real progress?

JIMMY CARTER: He’s making more progress than has been made, I would say, in the last 15 or 20 years. And he has done it almost on his own, apparently.

And I stay in touch with him. I give him some subtle advice by e-mail what I think might be done. But I hope that he will be bold and aggressive and lay down a so-called benchmark or a working process guidance by which they can be — both sides can be persuaded.

But I think that he, by himself, can’t do anything in order to be effective, at least in Israel. The president of the United States has to be directly involved and get the whole weight of the United States government behind any controversial proposal. In that case, I think they have a chance to succeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said last night — you told Charlie Rose in an interview last night you don’t think the Palestinians will ever agree to the Israeli demand that they be — that it be declared a Jewish state.

And you said that — that you didn’t think the Israelis would ever agree to give the Palestinians right of return. I mean, that basically says the current talks aren’t going anywhere.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I don’t know what’s going to be proposed by Secretary Kerry.

But I think it’s almost impossible for an Arab who lives in the West Bank to agree that Israel is a Jewish state, because about a fourth of the population of Israel itself are Arabs. And they can’t deny their own fellow Muslims just because they live across the border.

And I never have thought that it was possible at all for Palestinians to be permitted to come back into Israel in any sort of unrestrained way. I think their best alternative there is not to let them come back into Israel, but into the West Bank and Gaza, and then to pay those in Israel, maybe, if the international community decides to, some reparations for the property that they lost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to also ask you about spying by the U.S. government. It’s a story…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … that is very much in the news these days.

We know — we learned more this week about what they’re doing. But you said in an interview just in the last few days that you expect that the NSA, the government’s been looking at your e-mails, listening in on your phone calls, so when you have got something important to say, you say you send it by snail mail.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you sure no one is reading your snail mail?

JIMMY CARTER: I can’t tell — I can’t guarantee that.

But I don’t feel paranoid about it. But it’s been generally acknowledged that every telephone call made, every one that you make, every one that you receive, by e-mail including, is recorded. And they claim that they don’t read those messages, but they know that you made the call and to whom you made it and how long it lasted.

And if they later want to see your particular call, they can do so. And I think that’s very excessive. And I had to deal with that when I was president as well by passing the so-called FISA Act, and that was designed to prevent any American intelligence agency from monitoring any single call of an American. And now, of course, they record them all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let me move on.

JIMMY CARTER: All right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the book, it’s titled “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.”

You have said this is the most important book you have ever written.



JIMMY CARTER: Because the crimes against women and girls exceed almost anything that I have known in my lifetime as far as human rights abuses.

And it goes all the way from intense commitment of slavery, human trafficking in this country and around the world. About 100,000 girls in the United States of America were sold into slavery last year, according to the State Department, 800,000 in the world across international borders.

And I think the most horrible statistic that’s included in this book that is quite accurate is that there — there have been about 160 million little baby girls killed in this generation by their own parents because they didn’t want to have girls. They wanted boys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By abortions, you mean?

JIMMY CARTER: And that includes most recently abortions, because now, with the advent of sonograms even in the poorest countries, they can detect the sex of a fetus when it’s being developed, and they abort it.

Otherwise, they just wait until the girl is born and then strangle her to death. Now, 160 million is compared to, say, 30 million or 40 million people that were killed in the Second World War. So, there’s an entire generation of females that are no longer living, about 50 million or 60 million of these in China and India.

In fact, there’s one area of India where, for every 1,000 men living, there’s only 650 women living. And they have been killed by their parents. And now there’s a great shortage of brides to marry men in some of those countries, China, even South Korea. And women are now sold excessively as slaves around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m curious, President Carter, about why, at this stage of your life, your career, this is something you want to focus on.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How — how did you — this is, what, your 28th book and…

JIMMY CARTER: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why this, and what do you think can be done about it?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, the Carter Center has been active in 79 countries around the world, very active. We have had specific projects in that many countries.

And a lot of them are in the developing world. And we have seen the deprivation of women’s rights much more than it is in the United States with those areas, with genital mutilation cutting, and with honor killings and something — things like that.

And so this, to me, is a thing that I might do in the remaining years of my life that be — would bear the richest dividends, if I can just get the world aroused to the actual facts about what’s happening to women and girls and get us to act in concert. In every crime against females that’s mentioned in this book, I have got specific recommendations on what we can do, particularly here in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are saying this is something you want to continue to put focus on?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I will continue that as long as I live.


And I want the Carter Center to be kind of a center for people who want to join with us in this — I will call it a crusade to protect women and girls. The United States is very culpable. You know, not only do we deprive women of equal pay, but, on our university campuses, we have probably the worst sexual abuse of any other place in America.

There are only 4 percent of the rapes on college campuses even reported, because the college — the university presidents of the greatest universities don’t want to report sexual abuse on their campuses, because it brings discredit to them. So they discourage female students from reporting rapes.

And what this does is result in a few boys on the campus, a few men on the campus who know they can rape a girl with impunity, because they’re not going to be reported. And, if they are reported, they’re not going to be criminally prosecuted for it. And the same thing applies, as you well know, in our U.S. military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Jimmy Carter not shying away from the tough, tough subjects out there.

We thank you very much for being with us.

JIMMY CARTER: I enjoyed it, Judy. Thank you.

The post Jimmy Carter on Ukraine, Israel and addressing injustices faced by women around the world appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

CONSIDERING THE WEIGHT THE EARLY CHURCH ATTACHED TO THE resurrection, it is curious that, subsequent to the empty-tomb stories, no two resurrection accounts in the four Gospels are alike. All of these narratives seem to be very late additions to the tradition. They answer a host of questions raised by the gospel of the resurrection. At the core of all these accounts is the simple testimony: we experienced Jesus as alive.

A later generation that did not witness a living Jesus needed more; for them the resurrection narratives answered that need. But what had those early disciples experienced? What does it mean to say that they experienced Jesus alive? The resurrection appearances did not, after all, take place in the temple before thousands of worshipers, but in the privacy of homes or cemeteries. They did not occur before religious authorities, but to the disciples hiding from those authorities. The resurrection was not a worldwide historic event that could have been filmed, but a privileged revelation reserved for the few.

Nevertheless, something “objective” did happen to God, to Jesus, and to the disciples. What happened was every bit as real as any other event, only it was not historically observable. It was an event in the history of the psyche. The ascension was the entry of Jesus into the archetypal realm. Though skeptics might interpret what the disciples experienced as a mass hallucination, the experience itself cannot be denied.

This is what may have happened: the very image of God was altered by the sheer force of Jesus being. God would never be the same. Jesus had indelibly imprinted the divine; God had everlastingly entered the human. In Jesus, God took on humanity, furthering the evolution revealed in Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh on the throne in “the likeness, as it were, of a human form” (Ezek. 1:26). Jesus, it seemed to his followers, had infiltrated the Godhead.

The ascension marks, on the divine side, the entry of Jesus into the son-of-the-man archetype; from then on Jesus’ followers would experience God through the filter of Jesus. Incarnation means that not only is Jesus like God, but that God is now like Jesus. It is a prejudice of modern thought that events happen only in the outer world. What Christians regard as the most significant event in human history happened, according to the Gospels, in the psychic realm, and it altered external history irrevocably. Ascension was an “objective” event, if you will, but it took place in the imaginal realm, at the substratum of human existence, where the most fundamental changes in consciousness take place.

Something also happened to the disciples. They experienced the most essential aspect of Jesus as remaining with them after his death. They had seen him heal, preach, and cast out demons, but had localized these powers in him. Though the powers had always been in them as well, while Jesus was alive they tended to project these latent, God-given powers onto him. They had only known those powers in him. So it was natural, after his resurrection, to interpret the unleashing of those powers in themselves, as if Jesus himself had taken residence in their hearts. And it was true: the God at the center of their beings was now indistinguishable from the Jesus who had entered the Godhead. Jesus, in many of the post-Easter son-of-the-man sayings, seems to speak of the Human Being (the “son of man”) as other than himself. Was Jesus stepping aside, as he seems to do in the Gospels, to let the Human Being become the inner entelechy (the regulating and directing force) of their souls?

The disciples also saw that the spirit that had worked within Jesus continued to work in and through them. In their preaching they extended his critique of domination. They continued his life by advancing his mission. They persisted in proclaiming the domination-free order of God inaugurated by Jesus.

The ascension was a “fact” on the imaginal plane, not just an assertion of faith. It irreversibly altered the nature of the disciples’ consciousness. They would never again be able to think of God apart from Jesus. They sensed themselves accompanied by Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). They found in themselves a New Being that they had hitherto only experienced in Jesus. They knew themselves endowed with a spirit-power they had known only occasionally, such as when Jesus had sent them out to perform healings (Mark:7-13). In their struggles with the powers that be, they knew that whatever their doubts, losses, or sufferings, the final victory was God’s, because Jesus had conquered death and the fear of death and led them out of captivity.

Jesus the man, the sage, the itinerant teacher, the prophet, even the lowly Human Being, while unique and profound, was not able to turn the world upside down. His attempt to do so was a decided failure. Rather, it was his ascension, his metamorphosis into the archetype of humanness that did so for his disciples. The Human Being constituted a remaking of the values that had undergirded the domination system for some 3,000 years before Jesus. The critique of domination continued to build on the Exodus and the prophets of Israel, to be sure. But Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Power of God was a supernova in the archetypal sky. As the image of the truly Human One, Jesus became an exemplar of the utmost possibilities for living.

Could the son-of-the-man material have been lore that grew up to induce visions of the Human Being? Could it have been a way to activate altered states of consciousness based on meditation on the ascended Human Being enthroned upon the heart? It was not enough simply to know about the mystical path. One needed to take it.

The ascension was real. Something happened to God, to Jesus, and to the disciples. I am not suggesting that the ascension is nonhistorical, but rather that the historical is the wrong category for understanding ascension. The ascension is not a historical fact to be believed, but an imaginal experience to be undergone. It is not at datum of public record, but divine transformative power overcoming the powers of death. The religious task for us today is not to cling to dogma but to seek a personal experience of the living God in whatever mode is meaningful.

Dr. Walter Wink was Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Here is a statement one of his colleagues/students wrote about him:

I perform this gentle task, much sobered after having once again spent much time these past weeks reconsidering what Walter has said, and along the way, I’ve had a humbling and startling realization. I’ve had to ask myself: what in the world have I been doing reading philosophy instead of reading this? This is good stuff – tension, fissures, and all.I can’t speak about Walter’s influence on the profession of philosophy nearly as well as I can about his influence on my own thinking in philosophy.

So let me begin by recalling that Walter has made a virtual career of contesting dominant paradigms, but he does not (like a few in the field these days) contest the general paradigm of Christian faith itself, and he is not about to abandon the faithful notion that areal and holy power is at work in our spiritual life. This points to very pervasive philosophical theme for him – that there are two sides of power, as Michel Foucault himself would put it. First, we find arrayed all around us the “invisible dimension” of disciplinary social forces{Wink Powers 1998: 3}—whose very naming reveals the vivid and often terrible impact they have upon us.

These principalities and powers, Walter declares, can truly be “named” as actual spirits. This is not merely metaphor! Walter calls them “real though unsubstantial” forces “having no existence apart from their concretions in the world of things,”{Wink Naming 1984: 4} and anyone who doubts that Walter is a philosopher should commit that quote to memory! These forces are not to be reified, but, as Aristotle might say of Plato’s realities, neither are they to be reduced and razored away.

So – on the one hand, we have the Powers That Be. On the other hand, Walter rather bravely posits what some postmodernists disparagingly call a “binary distinction.” For in addition to the principalities and powers we all normally experience, Walter also distinguishes an essentially different power — of non-violent love — and love for Walter is metaphysically transforming. Here is Jesus’ “third way” between passivity and violence.{Wink Neither 1988}

In an age of very welcome interfaith dialogue and increasingly prolific “post-Christian” references, and in a world going quickly to hell in a terrorist’s hand basket, Walter proclaims the Christian gospel as “the most powerful antidote…that the world has ever known.”{Wink Powers 1998: 62} “And the same God who calls us to nonviolence gives us the power to carry it out.”{Wink Powers 1998: 135}

In this, Walter Wink has been steadfast over the years. He has stoutly resisted attempts to explain away or deconstruct this Other and Holy Power. His devastating critique of Morton Smith’s “magician” theory of Jesus ministry, {Smith Jesus 1978} which demolished that cantankerous thesis plank by shaky plank, culminated in unmasking Smith’s real agenda– namely, a “systematic effort to undermine the very ground on which Christian faith exists.”{Wink Jesus 1974: 11}

Smith’s agenda was not a welcome proposal, from Walter’s point of view – not then, back in 1978, and true to form, Walter has not changed his mind since. The irony of Smith’s work, Walter suggested back then, was that its real consequence might be not the debunking of Christianity, but the recovery of its shamanistic, miraculous, and healing power – in “a new synthesis of spirit and nature.”{Wink Jesus1974: 14}

In retrospect, it would certainly be stretching things to say that Morton Smith has really done that. It would be much less of a stretch to reflect upon the ways that Walter Wink has done that. This project of synthesizing “spirit” and “nature” is a thoroughly philosophical project. Can it be done? Well, it hasn’t been easy. When Walter began that project, it was not at all clear (to some) that he wasn’t being as much of a curmudgeon as the Morton Smiths of his profession. The very first sentence of his groundbreaking little book on biblical criticism –The Bible in Human Transformation from 1973, written for his colleagues at Union and elsewhere – was the startling announcement that “historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.”{Wink Bible 1973: 1} 

Now this seems hardly well designed to win friends and influence the very people who have made careers in that field, and indeed Walter did not stay too long here at Union.

But, as in so much else, Walter had the last laugh on that, and Union’s loss was Auburn’s gain – made all the more palatable by the fact that yea these many years he has been gracing the halls of both seminaries. Fortunately this has meant that he’s been a very present and available resource to us at Union, who have been impressed by the fact that so many of Walter’s younger colleagues in the biblical field began believing that what he was saying, back in 1973, might actually be true!

True in what sense, though? There’s a philosophical question! And here’s where the tension shows up. Here is where the story gets rather complex. Here is the point of logical tension. (1) For on the one hand, Walter wants to explain the spirituality of being human in terms of philosophical anthropology – which is the Christian liberal’s view about where to start doing theology (namely, with the experience of being human). As Schleiermacher {Schleiermacher Christian 1999: §50} and even Calvin himself insisted,{Calvin Institutes 1960: I, iii, 1} we know God through God’s relation to the world we experience, and so it is at least arguable (though in Calvin’s case, ambiguously so {Calvin Institutes 1960: I, iv}) that philosophical anthropology is the natural place for scholars to look.

And so Walter, in his typically provocative style, takes the heretical Ludwig Feuerbach as his model at one point, declaring that “we can relate to God as human beings because God is truly ‘Human.’”{Wink Human 2002: 42} This makes Walter an unabashed liberal humanist. And though it’s a crucial detail that slips past the befogged polemics of right-wing apologetics, the fact is that not all humanists are reductively secular humanists, and Walter’s project has been to make clear just how this can be so.(2)  So on the one hand, we have Walter’s humanistic liberalism. On the other hand, though – and here’s where the puzzling and complex tension enters the picture –Walter is skeptical of the disinterested, “objectivist” categories that were traditionally used in favor of liberal theological explanation. This is just what led him to offer a “new paradigm for biblical study” back in 1973 – the idea that there are “unconscious ideological elements”{Wink Bible 1973: 12} that affect the selection and interpretation of data, in the biblical field just as in any other field of study.

This is so obvious nowadays that we can hardly imagine ourselves back in the old historical-critical mindset, and Walter, once again the provocateur, declares that this very notion of an ’objective view’ is itself an oxymoron; every view is subjective, from a particular angle of vision.”{Wink Human 2002: 7} Walter does not want to call himself an objectivist. And here’s the problem! For it appears to leave Walter (and us with him) in a troublesome quandary, I think, because Walter’s whole project presupposes a framework of objectivity. The Hebrew account of the exodus, Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne, the social conscience of the minor prophets – all these indicate that, in Walter’s view at least, something objective happened in the formation of the OT: Other myths had been written entirely from the standpoint of the oppressors; but for the first time in human history, God begins to be seen as identified with the victims of violence.{Wink Powers 1998: 84-5} (We see here the trace of what postmodernists disapprovingly call a “meta narrative.”)

And recently Walter has proclaimed once again that “something ‘objective’ did happen to God, to Jesus, and to the disciples” which was a fact about historical consciousness and“not just an assertion of faith.”{Wink Human 2002: 152-3} – not just, in other words, subjective. Were this not so, then there would be no real power in Jesus third way.

Power is itself an objective category. So what’s to be done about this?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.  And in fact I’m not at all convinced that Walter’s project is deeply inconsistent at this point – I suspect that the inconsistency is only at the rhetorical level.  But even the appearance of inconsistency just sticks in the gut of any philosopher – which is one reason I’ve been reading this stuff so frenetically. There is more work to be done – a fact that keeps us scholars happily busy. But I think that Walter calls upon us not to miss the forest for the footnotes.

There is much more than a scholarly challenge for us here. Even scholars live in the real world of the Powers That Be. And in such a world — in the face of the suprahuman, disciplinary Powers arrayed against us — Walter reminds us that the activity of prayer and of spiritual discernment is indispensable, because unless we win the battle on the interior spiritual battlefield, before external battles are joined, we will become like the very ones we fight.  Evil will have made us over into its likeness. And in that case, we won’t even know we’ve lost. We’ll think we’ve actually won. Therein lies much of the sad part of the Christian legacy. And in his warnings against this, we are blessed to have the happy legacy of Walter Wink.

Walter Wink

Collected Readings

By Walter Wink and edited by Henry French

Publication Year: 2013

Walter Wink’s writing has been described as brilliant, provocative, passionate, and innovative. His skills in critical scholarship were matched by an engaging and honest style that make his work a must read for twenty-first century theologians and all who seek deeper understanding at the intersection of Bible, theology, social ethics, and more. This important collection is an essential reading for scholars and students of theology, ethics and biblical studies.

Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I am pleased that this book of readings from Walter Wink’s work is being published, for both personal and more than personal reasons. He was a close friend, beginning almost thirty years ago when we met at a professional meeting of Jesus scholars. Because of our friendship, I will refer to him as Walter.

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Editor’s Introduction

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pp. xi-xvi

Walter Wink died on May 10, 2012, at the age of 76, leaving behind a legacy of progressive Christian thought and practice that powerfully integrated social justice concerns and biblical scholarship. Throughout his long and productive career, Wink wore many hats, all of them well–a Biblical scholar who made significant contributions to the discipline and brought interdisciplinary skills to…

Bibliography of Works Cited

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pp. xvii-xviii


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pp. xix-xx

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An Autobiographical Essay: “Write What You See”

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pp. xxi-xxxii

The title of this short autobiographical piece,written in 1994,elucidates a key insight informing Walter Wink?s work?spiritual blindness impedes biblical scholarship;spiritual experience, spiritual awareness or ?sight,? opens the scholar to the transformative impulse of the text. In this piece, Wink traces the major movements in his spiritual development that led him to ground his scholarship in experience. From…

The Bible in Human Transformation

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pp. 1-2

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The Bankruptcy of Biblical Paradigm

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pp. 3-10

The infamous opening line of this slim volume “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt” defines the arc of Walter Wink’s scholarly career. Faced with a scholarly discipline that was no longer commensurate with, or even cognizant of, its primary purpose–the spiritual transformation of individuals and communities–Wink courageously named the elephant in the room and set himself the task of both…

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Toward a New Paradigm for Bible Study

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pp. 11-28

After critiquing historical biblical criticism as “bankrupt” in chapter 1 of The Bible in Human Transformation,Wink proceeds in chapter 3 to offer a new paradigm for biblical study.   He develops a “dialectical hermeneutic” which, in its movement from “fusion”to “distance” to “communion,”allows for a reciprocal engagement between reader and text within which the personal transformation of the reader becomes possible….

Naming the Powers

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pp. 29-30

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pp. 31-34

This book,the first in what has come to be known as the Powers trilogy, was written by Walter Wink following a four-month experience living “under military dictatorship” in several different Latin American countries. He had gone to Latin America to see first hand the human rights abuses and poverty that afflicted so many. The trip was research; the research was overwhelming. He returned to the United States ill and…

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Interpreting the Myth

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pp. 35-60

…other ources in Part One of Naming the Powers and then dealing with exegetical issues in Part Two, Wink turns in Part Three to the task of interpreting the meaning of biblical notions of power in their original context and for our context. Wink does not –as the ancients did–view the Powers as having a “separate, spiritual existence”; they are, rather, the “inner essence,” the “inner aspect” or the “spiritual aspect” of…

Unmasking the Powers

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pp. 61-62

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pp. 63-70

In the first volume of the Powers trilogy “Naming the Powers” Walter Wink set out to identify biblical terms for “power,” exegete them within their context, and then make the case that these terms point to the inner or spiritual aspects of concrete manifestations of power in human experience both then and now. He thus sought to recapture a language and interpretive categories for human experience that modern…

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pp. 71-106


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The Gods

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pp. 107-130

Walter Wink argues that, contrary to popular belief, the ancient Hebrews were not monotheists, rather they were henotheists: they did not deny the existence of “the gods”–but insisted that they had no primacy?that honor belonged only to Yahweh.  The ancient Hebrews were “mono-Yahwists”–they worshiped only Yahweh, the High God who held sway over all the lesser gods.These lesser gods were subordinated to…

Engaging the Powers

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pp. 131-132

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pp. 133-144

In the final volume of the Powers trilogy,Walter Wink takes as his task “engaging” the Powers in such a way that their negative (evil) and positive (good) functions are held together. His belief is that they can be redeemed in order that they might be reclaimed for the “humanizing purposes of God.” Wink here briefly describes five competing world views–the ancient, the spiritualistic, the materialistic, the theological,…

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The Myth of the Domination System

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pp. 145-166

Inthisfirstchapterof Engaging the Powers,WalterWinkmakesthesurprisingbutdemonstrableassertion thatthereligion ofancient Babylon, with its ?myth ofredemptiveviolence,?isaliveandwellineverynookandcrannyofAmericanlife.Thismythprovidesthegroundforthedominationsystem(s)thathavebedeviledthelivesofthemanywhilesecuringprivilege,powerandpossessionsforthefew.Not…

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The Nature of the Domination System

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pp. 167-190

At the beginning of this penultimate chapter of Part One of Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink makes three significant assertions regarding the Powers: t hey are good; they are fallen; they can and will be redeemed. These assertions are corollary to the assertion that God created the Powers and thus they cannot be inherently evil and beyond redemption. The Powers function as the necessary structures and systems that…

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Jesus’ Third Way: Nonviolent Engagement

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pp. 191-214

In this chapter,Walter Wink addresses what, for him, is a central tactic in strategies for engaging the Powers?nonviolence. He is quick to point out that nonviolence is not pacifism; it is not submissive acquiescence to the Powers That Be and their oppressive and exploitative structures and systems. As an alternative to stereotypical responses to evil “fight (meeting violence with violence) and flight” (passivity and…

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The Acid Test: Loving Enemies

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pp. 215-232

Walter Wink suggests with great seriousness that the primary spiritual question of our age is, –How can we find God in our enemies?–The answers to this provocative question just might save us from self-destruction and prevent those who resist domination from establishing new dominations that perpetuate the cycle of violence and oppression.  Love for enemies humanizes aggressive nonviolence, which, apart from such…

The Human Being

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pp. 233-234

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pp. 235-238

In this introduction to The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Walter Wink indicates that his purpose is to construct a “Christology from below.”  It is not a purely academic enterprise; he has a much more practical purpose. He is driven by his conviction that an encounter with the human Jesus just might enable us to learn something about becoming human ourselves.  He gives us a series of questions, the…

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The Human Being in the Quest for the Historical Jesus

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pp. 239-250

In the opening chapter of The Human Being,Walter Wink returns to several issues he raised almost thirty years earlier in The Bible in Human Transformation –the continuing “bankruptcy” of historical-critical biblical study, the false consciousness of objectivism, and the intention of the biblical material to both evoke and strengthen faith in the service of both personal and social transformation or humanization. As…

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Jesus and the Human Being

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pp. 251-300

In keeping with his focus on the intention/role of the text in personal and social transformation,Walter Wink begins this chapter on Jesus and the Human Being with the insight (credited to Elizabeth Howes) that the biblical notion of the son of the man is an “archetypal image” that functions as a “catalytic agent in the service of the Self.” As an archetypal image, the”Human Being”drives one toward an emerging and…

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The Human Being

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pp. 301-304

Walter Wink completes his study of The Human Being by highlighting NicolasBerdyaev’s notion of the “anthropological revelation”; the revelation of humanity’s “christological consciousness” The implications of humanity’s  christological nature are that we must not look for guidance from”above,”nor can we be overly dependent upon Scripture and tradition for guidance.Rather,we must look within and become…


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pp. 305-306


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pp. 307-311

Back Cover

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p. 345-345


To recapitulate, his works include:

  • The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Fortress Press, 2001.)
  • Peace Is The Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. (Edited by Walter Wink. Orbis Books, 2000.)
  • The Powers That Be:Theology for a New Millennium(New York: Doubleday, 1999)
  • Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999)
  • Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984)
  • Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)
  • Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)

Walter Wink, Theologian and Author, Dies at 76


Published: May 19, 2012

Walter Wink, an influential liberal theologian whose views on homosexuality, nonviolence and the nature of Jesus challenged orthodox interpretations, died on May 10 at his home in Sandisfield, Mass. He was 76.

The cause was complications of dementia, his son Stephen said.

In 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles, Dr. Wink became “one of the most important social and political theologians of the 20th century,” in the words of Sojourners, an ecumenical Christian magazine.

On the subject of gay rights, he acknowledged that in at least three instances the Bible categorically condemned homosexuality. But he argued that Jesus, who never commented on homosexuality in the Gospels, would have naturally supported a marginalized group.

Besides, he noted, modern people do not follow the Bible to the letter in all things, like its endorsement of slavery. Moreover, he criticized specific interpretations of biblical language, saying, for example, that the word sodomy as used in the Bible referred to anal rape, not consensual sex.

Sodomy, he wrote, has “nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting persons of the same sex is legitimate or not.” And he insisted, “There is no biblical sex ethic.”

Many theologians bridled at his interpretations. Robert A. J. Gagnon, writing in Christian Century in 2002, said Dr. Wink ignored clear evidence of biblical antipathy to homosexuality. He said Dr. Wink’s insistence that the Bible offers only sexual mores and no sex ethic was supported only by “sheer ideological fiat.”

Dr. Wink wrote disparagingly about the belief in the power of violence to solve both societal and personal problems, using as evidence the Babylonian creation story, which involves gods killing one another, as well as violent television cartoons and much in between.

He repeatedly called for “militant nonviolence.” The idea, he said, was not to be a doormat to aggressors but to turn their arrogance against them. He cited Jesus’ advice: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Dr. Wink compared Jesus to the community organizer Saul Alinsky in the clever ways Jesus advised nonviolence to get the upper hand. For his own part, Dr. Wink visited South Africa, East Germany, Central America and Chile to support nonviolent resistance there.

More broadly, Dr. Wink asserted that because Jesus had defined himself almost exclusively as “son of man,” he saw his task as not so much helping people to prepare for the next life but as helping them to be more human in this one.

Walter Philip Wink was born in Dallas on May 21, 1935. His father owned a hardware store and then was a salesman for the Fuller Brush Company. Walter grew up in a liberal Methodist church, but during a summer in Oregon as a college student he attended a Pentecostal church. Though he quickly rejected Pentecostal fundamentalist theology, he praised its spontaneity, which he saw as symbolic of the earliest days of the Christian church.

He graduated from Southern Methodist University and earned a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1961 and served as pastor in a blue-collar parish near Houston.

Living Theology: Hermeneutics of Grace


Here is a perspective from a recent blog in which the author speaks thoughtfully about Wink’s work:

Understanding the Other and participating in community are important to Christianity.[1] To understand the Other is to commune with them, and to be in a community is to practice understanding. However, for those of us who are critical and cynical about community, Christianity, and/or other Christians, the “hermeneutics of suspicion”[2] has been applied over and against these things. What I mean by “hermeneutics” in this article is not merely a form of interpreting a text or body of texts, but communication between people. The hermeneutics of suspicion is a “demystifying hermeneutics [which] sets up the rude discipline of necessity” by going “against illusion and the fable-making function” of the human conscience.[3] Paul Ricoeur, the philosopher who coined the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion”, stated:

Freud entered the problem of false consciousness via the double road of dreams and neurotic symptoms; his working hypothesis has the same limits as his angle of attack, which was, as we shall state fully in the sequel, an economics of instincts. Marx attacks the problem of ideologies from within the limits of economic alienation, now in the sense of political economy. Nietzsche, focusing on the problem of “value” — of evaluation and transvaluation — looks for the key to lying and masks on the side of the “force” and “weakness” of the will to power. [4]

In other words, the hermeneutics of suspicion is “characterized by a distrust of the symbol as a dissimulation of the real and is animated by suspicion, by a skepticism towards the given.” [5] This distrust and suspicion eventually lead to de(con)struction. Ricoeur even refers to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as the “three great ‘destroyers’.” [6] Though Ricoeur believes these three “clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a ‘destructive’ critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting”,[7] the hermeneutics of suspicion helped create a “culture of suspicion”[8] which fostered

the deconstructive sensibility and which would eventually make the desire to destroy, to decompose, to fragment and to sow the seeds of doubt the basis of literary-philosophical reflection for a large part of the second half of the 20th century. [9]

Again, this goes beyond texts. As Hans-Georg Gadamer notes, “all understanding is interpretation”.[10] Since understanding takes place in a conversation, “it is perfectly legitimate to speak of a hermeneutical conversation.” [11] Signs and symbols emanate from the Other in the form of language – to deconstruct the source of these signs and symbols is to, in a sense, deconstruct the Other.

When this same suspicion, doubt, and distrust mark one’s connection to other human beings, understanding and community become strained. Some, or many, of us have seen church communities break apart because of misunderstanding fueled by suspicion. Some of us may have even participated in this process, or simply left churches because of these broken bridges of communication. I am not advocating that we should be naïve and unquestioning in our communication, but that there is a need for grace in order to be in community and to be constructive, rather than deconstructive, in our hermeneutics in order to understand each other. What I’m proposing is a “hermeneutics of grace”.[12]

Grace and Gadamer

The Apostle Paul tells the Colossians that their speech should “always be gracious” (Colossians 4.6, NRSV), and tells Timothy to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus ” (2 Timothy 2.1, NRSV). Christians have been saved by grace (Ephesians 2.4), so that they may reveal grace as the ambassadors of God (2 Corinthians 5.20). The grace of God is the mark of a Christian. How does grace help us understand the Other and participate in community?

To understand someone else entails having some form of conversation with them. A hermeneutics of grace recognizes that there is a time to tear down, but, unlike the hermeneutics of suspicion, there is a time to build up. Even in its “tearing down”, a graceful hermeneutics is patient and kind, and seeks reconstruction. This openness to the Other, reflecting the divine love and grace of Christ, is not “boastful, arrogant, or rude” and “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13.4b-5). But what might a graceful conversation look like? Gadamer states:

To conduct a conversation… requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion… For we have seen that to question means to lay open, to place in the open… A person who possesses this art will himself search for everything in favor of an opinion. Dialectic consists not in trying to discover the weakness in what is said, but in bringing out its real strength. It is not the art of arguing… [13]

Gadamer, focusing on textual hermeneutics, coined the phrase “fusion of horizons”[14] as a term that signifies the realization of historically effected consciousness and its effects on understanding, “which is what mediates between the text and its interpreter.” [15] If one “intends to understand the text itself”, then one must realize that “the interpreter’s own thoughts… have gone into re-awakening the text’s meaning.”[16] A “fusion” is created between the text’s “horizon” and the interpreter’s “horizon” through the process of understanding. Can two people seek a “fusion of horizons”? Gadamer goes even further:

…in a successful conversation [the partners] both come out under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community. To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were. [17]

It is in the context of Christ-like love and grace, that is an attitude that is not “boastful, arrogant, or rude”, that Christians can pursue understanding within conversation. We can refer to this phenomenon of understanding between people as a “communion of horizons”. [18] In this hermeneutics of grace and communion of horizons, we “know that the wholeness which we all at heart seek… lies beyond us as a process to which we can only offer ourselves.”[19] Once we pursue and live out this hermeneutics of grace, we “begin to be released from egocentric stratagems and reunited with all creation.” [20]

Practicing a Hermeneutics of Grace

It is one thing to talk about grace and another to practice it. Even though the disciples walked with Jesus, they were still prone to being suspicious and casting judgment upon others! We must consciously be aware that all are made in the image of God. From there, we can reflect upon the grace and mercy God has bestowed upon us. Is Christ not a model for this hermeneutic?

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him… (Colossians 1.21-22, NRSV)

We went from being estranged and hostile, to Christ being incarnated into our world (understanding), to being reconciled through his death (love and grace), so that we can approach and be with God (communion). We must see our day-to-day encounters as an opportunity for understanding. Every word we say is a message that enters `someone’s horizon. It is not in suspicion towards the Other that we find community, but in grace towards others who embody the Imago Dei that a communion of horizons takes place. Find and surround yourself, as much as possible, with people who will practice these ideas with you. As Gadamer contends, “[coming to an understanding] is a life process in which a community of life is lived out.”[21] Even if you cannot find such a community, then model it towards others so that the grace you show plants a seed of grace in them. In every conversation we have, we must let our speech “always be gracious” (Colossians 4.6). This is my proposal for the hermeneutics of grace.*


*I want to thank Aubrey for her help and insight, but most importantly her practice, into this hermeneutics of grace.

[1] Hebrews 10.24-25, Acts 2.42-47, Romans 12.3-13, Galatians 6.2, 1 Corinthians 12.12-21
[2] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay On Interpretation (The Terry Lectures Series)(Binghamton, NY: Yale University Press, 1977), 32. Ricoeur identifies Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as the epistemological masters of suspicion (Ibid).
[3] Ibid. 35.
[4] Ibid. 34.
[5] Ruthellen Josselson, “The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion”, Narrative Inquiry14(1), 3.
[6] Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 33.
[7] Ibid. 33. Author’s italics.
[8] Franca Bruera, “Towards a Dramaturgy of Suspicion: Theatre and Myths in 20th-century France”,Beyond Deconstruction from Hermeneutics to Reconstruction, ed. Alberto Martinengo (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012). 138.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd rev ed. (London: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004), 390.
[11] Ibid. 389.
[12] This has no tie to the article by McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., “The Hermeneutics of Grace: Discerning the Bible’s Single Plot”, Interpretation, Vol. 57, No. 1
[13] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 360.
[14] Ibid. 304, 336, 366, 389, 397, 577.
[15] Ibid. 370.
[16] Ibid. 578. Author’s italics.
[17] Ibid. 371. Emphasis mine.
[18] Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 50-52. This term, coined by Walter Wink, is used within the context of a text and interpreter. However, I am borrowing and appropriating Wink’s term to fit the aim of this article. I argue that hermeneutics should not just be the art of interpretation in regards to texts and signs, but also the art of interpreting and understanding in human communication and conversations.
[19] Ibid. 52.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 443.

Dr. Wink wrote that he had learned as a parish minister to say and write only what the average intelligent person can read. This egalitarian propensity, he said, later caused some of his articles to be rejected by prestigious theological journals for being “chatty” or “popular.”

He taught at Union in the first half of the 1970s, but was denied tenure. This rejection came, he noted, after the publication in 1973 of his book “The Bible in Human Transformation,” which began, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.”

He then taught at Hartford Seminary, and in 1976 he joined Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he stayed for the rest of his career. With his wife, the former June Keener, he held workshops around the world that combined religious-themed pottery, dancing and biblical interpretation.

His marriage to the former Virginia Moore Conerly ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, his sons, Stephen and Christopher, and his daughter, Rebecca Barnes, and eight grandchildren.

Dr. Wink was found to have dementia in 2006; two years later he and his wife ended their workshops. In 2010, an interviewer for Sojourners asked what having dementia had taught him.

“This has not been a big learning experience,” he answered. “I just don’t think we ought to give so much credit to the sheer role of chance. We ought not to give death so much credit for our spiritual growth.”

Write What You See: An Odyssey by Walter Wink (autobiography)

From The Fourth R
Volume 7-3
May-June 1994

My first vivid encounter with Jesus took place in the fourth grade, when I was expelled from Sunday School for rowdiness. My parents punished me by making me skip Sunday dinner and stay in my room. For my comfort, my mother handed me the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, which had just been published. I began at the beginning, with the “begats,” which the RSV rendered, “was the father of.” The farther I read the more fascinated I became. Here is the most important book in the world, I thought, and yet it doesn’t make any sense. Why begin a book with this long list of ancestors? Thus was my curiosity about Scripture piqued.

The pastor of my Methodist church in Dallas, from my first awareness until I entered college, was Marshall T. Steel, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, a Harnack liberal who preached only on the gospels, and a highly diplomatic and cautious advocate of the United Nations and racial integration in an atmosphere that was extremely conservative. My whole theology was the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” I was never abused by threats of hellfire and damnation. I was untouched by fundamentalist strictures. I never heard the Pauline message; I was totally unfamiliar with the terms grace and justification. I was a Methodist perfectionist, steeped in the Sermon on the Mount, convinced that my only hope was to achieve the perfection demanded of me by Scripture and church and parents.

In my sophomore year of college I underwent an atheist phase (though I knew that the God whom I no longer believed in was still calling me to the ministry). One Sunday in church I heard a reading of Matt 6:25-34. “Consider the lilies of the fields . . . Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Suddenly it struck me: this passage-this promise-can be put to empirical, scientific test. Rather than simply doubt God’s existence, I will make a trial of it. I will commit the coming summer to behaving as if it were true. Then I will know whether there is a God or not.

That summer I went off to Oregon to work in a lumber mill. Without any friends, thrown back on my own collapsed spiritual resources, I found myself one afternoon in a forest of virgin Douglas fir. At their feet were rhododendrons fifteen feet tall, in full flower. Previously, such a sight would have filled me with adoration of God, for the beauty of nature had always been my most immediate avenue to God. But now I felt totally alienated from what I beheld. If there was no God, there was no one to thank for the glories of nature, no way to commune with God through nature, no Other that met me in the things that have been made.

I tried reading my pocket RSV New Testament. For some reason I turned to Acts. The more I read, the more alienated I felt. The Holy Spirit poured out on the disciples, healings–none of it seemed possible.  Either the whole thing was a lie, or at least most of it, or else my world was a lie, or at least part of it. As a college “intellectual” I had made reason my God. I was unaware that I had accepted the materialistic worldview while still holding on to the biblical worldview.

My doubts were, in fact, the consequence of trying to embrace two antithetical worldviews simultaneously.

After a month of wrestling in my soul, I came to the conclusion that there had to be a God. But there was no content. I said the word “God,” and something resonated as true, but I had abandoned my childhood faith and had not arrived at anything else.

About this time I received a letter from a friend mentioning a five-day spiritual retreat near Portland. It was sponsored by the Camps Farthest Out, a pietistic prayer movement headed by such leaders as Glenn Clark and Frank Laubach. The leader of this retreat was Roland Brown, whose willingness to take time to talk with me and to pray for me was for me an incarnating of the love of God. In the closing worship, Matthew 5:25-34 was again read, and I reaffirmed my empirical experiment. The summer was half gone.

A woman asked me what I intended to do next. I had lost my job at the sawmill due to an industry-wide strike, and had been a migrant fruit picker for the previous weeks, sleeping in the town dump in Eugene and a barn in Salem while picking strawberries and cherries. I said I didn’t know, but thought I’d head back to Salem. She said she owned a sawmill not on strike (so typical: a Christian with a non-union shop), and if there was a place, I had a job. But she couldn’t find out till Monday. She and her companion offered to drop me off in Salem, though it was out of the way.

As we entered Salem, she asked if I’d mind if they stopped to see an old friend, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. She asked him if anybody was hiring, and he said, “Well, Carl Hoge is having a sale at his furniture store; maybe he could use a hand.” Just then the doorbell rang, and in walked-Carl Hoge. Yes, he needed someone to restock furniture and be janitor. I had a job.

“Now, where will you stay?” the woman asked. I mentioned that someone visiting the retreat had offered to put me up at his place. The women demurred; they insisted that I let them put me up in a hotel. But it seemed logical to stay at my friend’s home, so I had them drop me there, even though it was 9:30 p.m. and no one was at home. After an hour’s wait, my friend and his father arrived-from the funeral home. My friend’s mother had died just that day, and there I was, in the right place at the wrong time.

Next day I determined to listen more closely to the guidance I seemed to be getting. I set out with the rental ads in hand to find a room. In an uncanny way, it seemed almost as if the houses were speaking to me: “It’s all right to stay here;” “No!, not here;” “Possibly.” Suddenly I saw a house with a sign on the porch: “Rooms.” Something said, “This is it!” A man was watering the lawn. I went up to him and said, “I have to stay here.” He was sorry but the house was full. “That’s impossible!” I blurted out. “Could you go look? Maybe someone moved out overnight.” Well, he said, he could look, but he was pretty sure.

Just then his wife came out on the porch. I hailed her, saying I had to stay there. She said there was nothing–unless I were to sleep on a cot on the basement landing. I took it. She hung a bedspread for privacy, and gave me a lawn chair by the furnace. That would be my home for the next six weeks.

Next morning the landlady came walking down the basement stairs as I sat in the lawn chair. Without even turning her head toward me, she announced, “God has sent you here to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That’s all she said. Within five days I had.

This was in 1954, several years before the earliest beginnings of the “charismatic movement.” I knew nothing about the Holy Spirit, only what I had read in that virgin forest in Acts. One of the roomers, though in great pain in a body cast, took me to the Pentecostal church five blocks away. What happened next is set down in a letter I wrote immediately after the event in July 1954:

Imagine me in a room full of people all singing choruses–simple sincere songs about us–and Christ. The people all have their eyes shut, singing in prayer, some clapping, some reaching their arms up, yearning with all their hearts to have more of Jesus. Over on the side is a piano, a bass fiddle, and accordion. As we stood singing suddenly my fingers began to burn, tingle as if they’d gone to sleep. But they weren’t! Circulation was unhindered. This burning spread to my arms. I wanted to lift my arms to Him, but pride held me back, and now pride chained by arms to my sides. Not thwarted, the tingling ecstasy spread to my knees, my feet, my back. It was as if some power had shot me through with electricity. I couldn’t stand it! It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I was crushed to my seat, mystified, confused-and still the echo of the tingling remained. I knew that something Real, something more powerful than dynamite had been playing over me.

Then the minister rose and said “Let’s worship the Lord.” On all sides people started singing, saying “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah,” “Thank you Jesus,” making up the strangest experiences I’ve ever witnessed happened. People began prophesying and speaking in tongues.

The most important thing is what happened after the service. At the close we’d risen again to worship the Lord, and the power of God was so strong in that group that it cascaded from heart to heart like pounding surf. Again that strange, overpowering tingling. I was crushed to my seat. I was dimly aware that the service was over, that those who desired to could stay and pray, but I couldn’t move. I was knotted by conflict. One minister said, “Somehow I feel that there is someone in this room tonight whom God has something special for.” As I was still under the surge of this electrical tension one of the preachers came up to me, took my hand and asked me if I was ready to serve the Lord no matter where it led me. When I murmured yes, he led me to the platform. Then the three ministers stood around me as I knelt, praising God and speaking in tongues and raising the most glorious din you’ve ever heard. Suddenly all my fears, pride, doubt, all my holdouts slipped away. It was just God and I, and the praising was a barrier to keep all else out.

Now the Power pulsing through my blood, my nerves, increases. My feet burn, tingle, as do my hands. Suddenly my legs are touched by heat. It spreads. (This is all the physical reaction. Actually this is dimly remembered, as my central consciousness was with Jesus in Paradise. That’s all I sought. The rest-just happened to me.) I remember the glorious release as, kneeling, I stretched my hands to God. Then I remember being on my feet. Then I felt myself falling backwards as I stretched deeper and deeper into the burning light, as all my flesh throbbed with the wind of His passing. They caught me, but I didn’t care. I was in Jesus’ hand. I went down perfectly relaxed and lay there.

Then the power increased yet more. Now single spots were touched-my neck at the throat, my back, my tongue, my head, and always my hands, my feet . . . A preacher said, “Praise Him, open your mouth.” And suddenly I found myself singing, stronger, stronger still, making up melodies in complete release, complete abandon, complete love. Then I spoke a little in tongues, but fear held me back. I didn’t believe in it, you see. I sang, and sang, and praised God. Then I was swept with such joy that I began laughing where I lay. Still I tingled. Then the waves subsided. . . . .”

My landlady suggested that a fast might be a good complement to the experience, so I undertook a seven-day water-only fast. A powerful image came to me during that fast: a nail was being driven into an anvil. Such a thing is impossible, of course-unless the anvil is superheated. That is what was happening to me in the fast. Since then I have never been able to doubt the reality of God. During the “death of God” fad, I felt I should at least try to doubt God’s presence, but I couldn’t even muster a mild skepticism.

When I returned to Southern Methodist University and tried to share this experience with my friends, all but two thought I had flipped out. Yet I had never felt so sane. In some ways, however, the experience threatened to split me in half, between reason and experience. I found very quickly that I couldn’t stomach Pentecostal fundamentalism. I had, after great struggle, offered my intellect to God, and had the very clear sense that God had handed it back, with the injunction to use it for God rather than my own ego. Those instructions said nothing about making a sacrifice of my intellect. So now, with very little help from church or seminary, and from only a few friends, I was faced with the arduous task of trying to integrate this concussive experience with the rest of my life, and to figure out how to think about it in the context of science, history, politics, psychology, and theology. That journey has been long and exhilarating, and I am grateful God found a way to make it even more complex.

For many years I shared that experience with no one else. Even now I feel a twinge of embarrassment at my nineteen-year-old exuberance. But that experience has colored everything I do as a biblical scholar. Historical research depends on analogy to understand the past. If we have limited analogues-if for some reason our life experience is truncated, or too narrow, or filled with anxiety about overstepping the permissible, then our capacity to understand the past will suffer as a result. A person raised in a rationalistic, scholastic religion, a religion circumscribed by deadly fears of heresy and dogmatically confined to an oppressive orthodoxy, is not going to be able to enter empathetically into the spontaneity and boundary-shattering milieu of the early church. As a result of my own experience, I have no trouble believing in the plausibility of some events that to some of my fellow scholars simply seem impossible.

Spiritual healing, for example, was part of the Camp Farthest Out and the Pentecostal experience. So when I became a pastor of a church in Texas, I inaugurated a healing service. Ministerial colleagues that I shared this with thought I was crazy. (This was 1964, before spiritual healing had made a comeback through the efforts of Agnes Sanford and the charismatic movement.)

The Friday before our first healing service I received a call from a woman in our church who had just been told by her doctor that she had a tumor in her uterus the size of an orange. I cheerfully told her that would be nothing for God to heal, and to show up Sunday night. (I have never done that since!) Being of a literal cast of mind, she believed me. We laid on hands and prayed, and the next week she went back to her doctor. “I have the biopsy report here on my desk,” he said, “but first let’s have a look at you.” Then, “Who’s been messing with you!?” “Why?” she asked. “It’s gone. Your tumor’s gone!”

Because of that, and many similar experiences with spiritual healing, I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases. Other scholars, who have never experienced such healing, either in themselves or others, may find themselves totally rejecting the historicity of the healing stories. They might even defend their understanding of reality by deciding that the story I just told is untrue. This judgment, however, would be made not on historical grounds, but on the basis of their worldview, which is materialism. Historical discussion is often made to bear the weight of what are essentially differences of worldview, which cannot in principle be settled by historical method. Worldviews are constituted by what one believes about the nature of reality, and therefore by what one conceives to be possible. People with an attenuated sense of what is possible will bring that conviction to the Bible and diminish it by the poverty of their own experience. Consequently, one of the best preparations for historical work on the Bible is continually to expand the horizons of our experience, especially our experience of spiritual reality.

In that blue-collar parish near Houston I quickly learned that my inability to explain some aspect of faith or theology to my congregants was not the fault of their lack of intelligence or schooling, but of my not understanding it well enough. This learning has had enormous impact on my writing, not just in striving for clarity, but in overcoming the conceit of technical vocabulary and esoteric references that plague the academic field. I have come to the point now where I will write only what the average intelligent person can read, no matter what the subject or occasion (even if it is a gathering of scholars). This has resulted in the rejection of articles by the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion because my work it too “chatty” or “popular.” But I refuse to abandon as my readership that vast and hungry throng of non-specialists who wonder why scholars only talk to each other and won’t include them in the conversation. I can only admire Bob Funk’s development of the Jesus Seminar Associates and his continually prodding the Fellows to speak and write in a way that includes them.

After five very educative years in the parish I returned to teach at Union Seminary in 1967. These were the years of the student revolution, the Black economic development crisis, and the Black Panther bail fund, all of which brought Union into incredibly exciting and vitriolic turmoil. New forms of governance were sought that were more democratic and participatory. It was a time of heightened consciousness about racism and patriarchalism. Through all of this I was attempting, with only small success, to relate the Bible to the upheaval we were undergoing. It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people. The vast majority of scholars were now interested only in answering questions they were asking each other. The community of accountability among biblical scholars had ceased to be the church and had become the academic guild of professional scholars. Now, back in an academia under siege, I sensed all the more powerfully the impotence of the detached, objective approach to Scripture for dealing with the real issues of life.

I began searching for a better way to do biblical work, one that would place the relevance of the text for contemporary life not at the end of the endeavor, but include it from the outset. I began exploring the various technologies of the “human potential movement,” finding much that was helpful to me personally and professionally in a general framework of narcissism and naivete about the depth of human evil. But the real help came when I discovered the Guild for Psychological Studies in San Francisco. Led by a remarkably creative thinker, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, the Guild focuses through seminars on the life and teaching of Jesus, aided by a Socratic, questioning approach and the depth psychology of Carl Jung. I had already been in Jungian analysis and had used the Socratic approach, though not in seminary, so I found the Guild a perfect match.

More important, however, was what began to happen to me. I began to sense that I had to do something about the poverty of my own self. Otherwise, I would be unable to proceed closer to the mystery in Scripture, but would simply continue to circle its perimeter, accumulating ever more information without myself being changed by the encounter.

I am beginning to understand that no scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that she or he has attained. No reconstruction outstrips its reconstructor. We cannot explain truths we have not yet understood. We cannot present insights that we have not yet fathomed. Our picture of Jesus reflects, not only Jesus, but the person portraying Jesus, and if we are spiritual infants or adolescents, there are whole realms of human reality that will simply escape us. In Revelation 1:19, the seer John is ordered, “Now write what you see.” The problem lies precisely there, in sight: we can only describe what we see, and if we haven’t seen it, we may miss the revelation entirely. It is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.

One of the early exercises in the first seminar I attended at the Guild in 1971 was to take the story of the Healing of the Paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 and internalize it by making in clay my own inner paralytic. I had a PhD and a prestigious academic appointment; I “had” no paralytic. Life was careening along just fine, I thought. But to be a good sport I tried it. Shutting my eyes as they suggested, I let my hands have their way. After a period of time had passed, I looked to see what my hands had done. They had made a beautiful bird-with a broken wing! I am no artist, and was simply astonished that my hands had done this. More significant still, I suddenly knew precisely what that broken-winged bird was in me: an atrophied feeling function. Thus began the task of recovering my capacity to feel that was to last, in earnest, for the next eight years.

I immediately adapted what I was learning to my classes at Union. The students loved it, but my colleagues were a bit put off by the notion of graduate students working in clay and pastels like Sunday school kids. Nor did they appreciate it when we bellowed the Lord’s Prayer at the top of our lungs (in order to do justice to the imperative force of each of its petitions). When I published The Bible in Human Transformation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), with its infamous opening line, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt,” my fellow biblical faculty greeted it politely, with demurrers, but largely simply waited for my tenure to come up. When it did, they voted it down.

Since that book had also incensed large numbers of other biblical scholars, I found myself virtually blacklisted. Bob Lynn of the Union faculty was also overseeing the operation of a small continuing education and research center in the Union buildings, Auburn Theological Seminary, and took me on half time. The other half was assumed by Hartford Seminary, which had closed shop as a degree granting institution and was engaged in a project to improve church ministry. Thus began my new career as a peripatetic leader of continuing education events.

In time, my wife June and I began to do workshops together, using not only clay and pastels, mime and role playing, but also her own unique blend of meditation and movement. Now I am doing what I wanted from the time of my experience in Oregon: to lead people in an encounter with Scripture that can be transformative. God had also been providentially at work in my being refused tenure.

My concern with Bible study method was only the pedagogical side of my life in that period, however. On the scholarly front, William Stringfellow’s Free in Obedience (New York: Seabury, 1964) had provided me a vision of how the biblical category of principalities and powers could serve as the basis for a social ethic based on the New Testament. The received wisdom till then was that the New Testament is only concerned with personal ethics; if one is interested in a social ethic, one must turn to the Exodus or the prophets. Work on the Powers series, first conceived as a single volume, grew into three, and occupied 28 years. The titles in the Powers trilogy are Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers. A related volume, Cracking the Gnostic Code, rounds out the understanding of the Powers in the early centuries of our era.

As a part of my preparation for writing about the Powers, June and I decided to spend a sabbatical semester in Chile in 1982, so that we might experience what it is like to live under a military dictatorship. I became increasingly convinced that nonviolence was the only way to overcome the domination of the Powers without creating new forms of domination. I decided to test this hunch in South Africa, where we spent part of a sabbatical in 1986. On our return I wrote a little book, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987) which urged the churches of South Africa to become more involved in nonviolent direct action against the apartheid regime. With the financial help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, our little church in the Berkshires of Massachusetts individually addressed 3,200 copies to the black and white English-speaking clergy of South Africa. Later, the South African Roman Catholic church sent out another 800.

The book infuriated some:  how dare a white American male tell those who are already suffering to suffer more, voluntarily and deliberately. Even more anger came from those committed to a violent solution. But the book had its intended effect. Someone from the outside had to say what few inside could say without losing credibility. The book redefined nonviolence (which was heard there, thanks to the white missionaries, as nonresistance and passivity) in an active, militant sense, and did so by appeal to Jesus’ own teaching. Within a year the debate had completely reversed itself (my book was only one of the factors) and the head of the South African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, was calling on the churches to engage in active nonviolence.

In 1988 I was invited to return to South Africa to do workshops on nonviolence. When the government refused to issue a visa, the person who invited me, Rob Robertson, suggested that I try to enter illegally. First Richard Deats and I led a workshop in Lesotho (which I could enter without a visa), where we sang each day as our theme song “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son.” Then Rob and I headed for the South African border. As we entered the border post, the soldier in charge was whistling-”Thine is the glory”! It was like a biblical story: the eyes of the soldiers were blinded (by an out-of-season torrential rain that darkened the border post), they couldn’t see well enough to read, so they asked me to read my passport for them. They never even looked for the visa! Those two weeks were the only other time in my life besides Oregon that I experienced the moment-by- moment guidance of God in such complete abundance. I was never apprehended; I went cheerfully about doing workshops on nonviolence until time to leave, when we “turned me in” and I was expelled from the country.

My growing interest in nonviolence led to an appointment as a Peace Fellow for the year 1989-90 at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Without that year I don’t know when I would ever have finished Engaging the Powers (a book that won three awards as “Best Religious Book of 1993.”) During that year June and I also led workshops on nonviolence in Northern Ireland, East Germany, Iona in Scotland, and in London. I also made a solo trip to do the same in South Korea.

My preoccupation all these years has been to facilitate personal and social transformation through Scripture and art, movement and meditation. Now I am trying to turn full circle, back to the Jesus who has transfixed my attention all these years. I am slowly cranking up on a project on Jesus and the Son of Man. I participate with an uneasy conscience in the Jesus Seminar discussions about a database for the Jesus traditions. The discussions are so exciting and informative, the participants so brilliant and fun to be with, that I find it easy to set aside my objections to the kitschy (though decision-forcing) business of voting our preferences with beads.

My greatest hesitation about the Jesus Seminar is the idea that it is possible to build, from the bottom up, a perspective-free, objective database. Such a neutral, “pictureless” standpoint is impossible. Every analysis is value-laden. We cannot help projecting onto the texts our own unconscious needs and desires for transformation or confirmation, to say nothing of our socio-political location and biases. We need to take seriously the implications of the Heisenberg principle: that the observer is always a part of the field being observed, and disturbs that field by the very act of observation. In terms of the interpretive task, this means that there can be no question of an objective view of Jesus “as he really was.” “Objective view” is itself an oxymoron; every view is subjective, from a particular angle of vision. We always encounter the biblical text with interests. We always have a stake in our reading of it. We always have angles of vision, which can be helpful or harmful in interpreting texts. Every description of Jesus is a form of advocacy, whether positive or negative. All lives of Jesus are a kind of apologetics.

Thus liberals will tend to construct a liberal Jesus, conservatives a conservative Jesus, pietists a pietistic Jesus, radicals a radical Jesus, and atheists an unattractive Jesus. Scholars who believe Jesus was like a cynic philosopher will tend to reject as non-historical any data that suggests otherwise. When the cynic school prevailed, for example, in the voting at the Jesus Seminar, the apocalypticists quit coming; this further skewed the vote. The Seminar is denied the fresh perspective that liberationists and feminists might bring since there are almost no women or non-Caucasians in the group. So the picture that is emerging of Jesus is remarkably like that of a tweedy professor interested in studying Scripture.

I have abandoned the quest for the historical Jesus, conceived as an objective, value-free endeavor. Instead, I am in quest of the originative impulse released by Jesus, and will value traditions regardless of their source, so long as they are faithful to that originative impulse. So I intend to ignore the Seminar’s database and voting tabulations when I begin to write on the Son of Man.

What I will value, however, are the remarkable collection of papers on individual pericopes that we have all churned out, and the invaluable friendships that have developed in the course of our work together. Despite my hesitations, the Jesus Seminar has been the most rewarding experience I have ever had with my colleagues in the biblical field, and I am grateful to Bob Funk for convening us.

Copyright © 1994 Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Walter Wink and War and Peace

September 11, 2011  Deforest London (see click to his site above)

In exploring the ethical dimensions of war and peace, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink offers an approach that provides a helpful “grammar” for understanding the complexity and opacity of human violence. As an alternative to the Ancient Worldview (in which all things in earth are mirrored in heaven), the Spiritualist Worldview (in which earth is a cosmic error), the Materialist Worldview (in which heaven does not exist), and the Theological Worldview (which compartmentalizes religion and science), Wink suggests an Integral Worldview, which he describes as pan-entheistic, where “everything is in God and God in everything.”[1]

In this worldview, Wink sees an invisible dimension not apart from physical reality and human society but embedded within the material and social world. He calls this invisible reality the domain of the Powers, which Scripture describes using the imagery of angels and demons. Wink distances himself from evangelicals and charismatics who often see these forces as creatures flying around the world. For Wink, however, these “angels and demons” are the spirits or spiritualities of corporations (General Motors), organizations (Greenpeace), states (California), regimes, churches and even families.

These Powers are good, but fallen and therefore, in need of redemption. Whenever these Powers seek their own will and advancement over and above the general welfare, they fall prey to their own demonic sway. These self-seeking Powers then culminate to create a Domination System that oppresses, marginalizes and scapegoats all those who might threaten their Power. The fuel that empowers this Domination System is the intoxicating Myth of Redemptive Violence, which upholds violence as the great panacea.

Wink locates the Christian answer to the Domination System and its Myth of Redemptive Violence in the teachings of Jesus and the non-violent Reign of God, which Jesus announced and embodied. Wink reads the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount as a call to creative non-violent resistance, where “turning the other cheek” and “going the second mile,” when seen in the historical context, become divine judo moves against the Domination System. [2]

Wink on War and Peace

With this understanding, Walter Wink stands in opposition to all violence and therefore, all war. In Chapter 7 of The Powers That Be, he critiques the Just-War theory, poking holes in its logic so that the theory deflates, especially when we realize how many millions of innocent civilians are killed in war, regardless of any attempt to “give noncombatants immunity.” In fact, Wink sees Just-War theory as a Christian appropriation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. At the same time, Wink does not encourage pacifism if that means cowardice and docile submission to the Domination System. More than once, Wink affirms a quote from Gandhi, which many would be surprised to hear: “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I [Gandhi] would advise violence.”[3] Wink argues for a “Third Way” that stands in opposition to all violence with the same courage of a soldier at war, willing to sacrifice her or his life on the battlefield. In the same “line of duty” as the Reign of God and the Satyagraha (“the force of truth”), Wink’s “Third Way” taps into the divine power, which topples the Domination System and exposes the Myth of Redemptive Violence.[4]

Wink also offers profound psychological insight into the roots of human violence and war in describing the human tendency to project one’s own imperfections (and “shadows”) onto others, where they can be violently expunged. Wink invites us to see our enemy as a gift in whom we can begin to perceive and compassionately accept the parts of ourselves that we seek to reject and violently destroy. Although Jesus appears to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (which would encourage a perfectionist to destroy all imperfections within and without), Wink explains the meaning that is lost in translation, which Luke captures more accurately when he records Jesus saying, “Be merciful, just as your Divine Parent is merciful.”[5]

Critique of Wink

Walter Wink also acknowledges the sociological sources of war and violence in his exploration of René Girard’s mimetic theory and scapegoat mechanism. According to Girard, violence emerges from mimetic rivalry (when two people or two groups of people desire something that cannot readily be shared); however, the violence can be placated if two parties agree on a common scapegoat upon whom they can heap all of their anger and vitriol. Girard sees this scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacred violence, which is practiced in the sacrificial rites of various civilizations, including the ancient Israelites. Girard also sees mimetic rivalry as the root of war and the scapegoat mechanism as the source of temporary peace (at the expense of the lives of innocent scapegoats). The New Testament, according to Girard, exposes and revokes the violent scapegoat mechanism by highlighting the victim of the mechanism as Jesus, who is divine. Jesus’ victimhood to the scapegoat mechanism reveals the truth that God is always on the side of the victim of the universal scapegoat mechanism, just as the Reign of God is always opposed to the Domination System.

Wink affirms this reading of the Cross and rejects the theory (presented in the Epistle to the Hebrews) that Jesus “was sent by God to be the last scapegoat and to reconcile us, once and for all, to God.”[6] Wink also rejects Paul’s “notion that God caused Jesus to be a final ‘sacrifice of atonement by his blood.’”[7] The problem with Wink’s rejection of the sacrificial system ordered and ordained by God in the Torah is the potential danger of not only Christian supersessionism but the more far lethal poison of Christian anti-Semitism. Although Wink certainly condemns any form of oppression or marginalization, his portrayal of the Hebrew God as a bloodthirsty deity to be rejected by the more enlightened and loving Christians can very easily feed into noxious Christian understandings of Judaism, a faith tradition which still upholds the very Torah that orders blood sacrifice. With its long and horrifying history of violence against Jews, the Church needs to be extra careful when reading and interpreting the G-d portrayed in the Torah (and in the New Testament) so as not to make Jews appear to be bloodthirsty murderers of Christ, thus perpetuating latent anti-Semitic tendencies.

Finally, Wink explains that the spiritual renaissance of American culture will need to focus on “the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds.”[8] Although I agree in many ways with Wink, this understanding helps me see why he fails to mention the power of the resurrection (the word “resurrection” is not in the index), which is a reality deeply connected to “the Christ of the creeds.”  I find this particularly disappointing especially because I experience the resurrection as the ultimate sign of divine forgiveness and non-violent resistance to human war and violence. In the resurrection, Christ receives the violence of the world and the violence within my own heart. Christ then resists our violence by loving and forgiving us even in the process of crucifying him (Luke 23:34), not to condone the violence but to transform us. And even after killing him, Christ returns in the power of Satyagraha and the Reign of God to say, “Even though you killed me, I still forgive you and I still love you. Will you join me?”

[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 20.

[2] “Divine judo move” is a term borrowed from Heim, S. Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 314.

[3] Wink, 118.

[4] “David Dellinger observes,” according to Wink, “that the theory and practice of active nonviolence are roughly at the stages of development that electricity was in the early days of Marconi and Edison.” Wink, 112.

[5] Wink, 167.

[6] Ibid, 87.

[7] Ibid, 88.

[8] Ibid, 161.

Jesus and Nonviolence

by Walter Wink

I just finished reading Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink. Wink is a professor of Biblical Interpretation and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Another book he’s written which is definitely on my list is called The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. Wink is a genius and a must read for anyone interested in liberation theology (not that he’s a liberation theologian), Jesus & Empire discussions (not that he’d necessarily use the Empire language), or, in this case, nonviolence.Wink submits an third option, one which he sees as not his own but of Jesus, apart from the “fight or flight” options we have been trained into so very long. He argues that nonviolence is the only form of resistance which does not “mirror” the oppressor being resisted and which “creates… social instruments for change that already embody the better life they seek ahead” (page 102). On page 72 Wink writes,

“Violence simply is not radical enough, since it generally changes only the rulers but not the rules. What use is a revolution that fails to address the fundamental problem: the existence of dominion in all its forms, and the myth of redemptive violence that perpetuates it?”

Therefore in all our work for social change, in all our revolutionary ambitions, and in siding with the oppressed we must embody God’s Kingdom for the not only do the ends not justify the means but they desperately depend on them. Wink, though he seeks an alternative to violence does not promote the second option which we usually think of as the only other option: “flight.” He seeks a radical new way, Jesus third way, which aggressively seeks change and empowers the oppressed to assert their humanity but also embodies a dominion of love, i.e. God’s dominion. We must resist evil, he explains, but we must love our enemies and offer to them the gift of opportunity to be redeemed unto the oppressed. The third way is no less courageous than the way of violence (it may indeed be more so) in the pursuit of justice.

Wink doesn’t only deal in pragmatic examples (although he has plenty of examples) of the “effectiveness” of nonviolence but offers this option in a way that transcends effectiveness and “means and ends”: “Means and ends coalesce as people create for themselves social instruments for change that already embody the better life they seek ahead” (page 102). “With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored” (page 27).

This book was very helpful and I would highly recommend it to anyone who cares to embody the Kingdom of God here and now.


The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man 

Front Cover
A thorny historical issue handled with artistry and imagination The epithet “the son of the man” (or “the Human Being”) in the Gospels has been a highly debated topic. Wink uses this phrase to explore not only early Christology but the anthropology articulated in the Gospels. Jesus apparently avoided designations such as Messiah, Son of God, or God, though these titles were given by his disciples after his death and resurrection. But Jesus is repeatedly depicted as using the obscure expression “the Human Being” as virtually his only form of self- reference. Wink explores how Jesus’ self-referential phrase came to be universalized as the “Human Being” or “Truly Human One.” The Human Being is a catalytic agent for transformation, providing the form and lure and hunger to become who we were meant to be, or more properly perhaps, to become who we truly are.
Like the ancient myths in which a tiny creature, say a mouse, gnawed the rope that freed a lion, or like the Watergate complex, where a black janitor noticed the tape on the door latch, which led to the conviction of President Richard Nixon’s advisors and his ultimate resignation, so too, I found that a single word led to the recovery of the true meaning of Jesus’s saying on nonviolence. That wordwas “right.” I had been struggling with the passage in Matthew 5:39–41 that runs, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’   But I say to you, do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right  cheek, turn the other also.” That little word, “right,” where did it come from? I had never noticed it before. Since adopting the Socratic method of teaching back during my fieldwork in Harlem, I naturally asked the class I was teaching at the time what that little word, “right,” was doing there. Nobody had a clue, the teacher included. It was the clue! In a moment of inspiration I suggested that a couple of people get up and role-play the text. Two volunteered. “Now,” I began, “face off. Which of you will be the hitter, which the‘ hittee’?”  That settled, I said to the hitter, “How will you strike your opponent?” He made a fist and faked a blow with his right hand. But someone objected: the text doesn’t say right fist,  but right
cheek. To strike the right cheek with the  fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Anotherstudent chimed in. The only way one could strike the right cheek would be with the back of the right hand
I spent the weekend studying backhand blows, andbrought my results to class. “What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fist fight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her ‘place.’ ” I had learned that one normally did not strike a peer, and if he or she did then one was exorbitant. A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which fighting back and retaliating would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering in submission. This realization opened a floodgate for all sorts of new insights. It became important to ask who Jesus’s audience is. Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you”).  There are, among his followers, people who were subjected to these very indignities and forced to stifle their inner outrage. These were people who suffered dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.
Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? And it clicked: Because the action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying: “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because the slave’s nose is in the way. He cannot use his left hand regardless. If he hits with his fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.
Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to de-humanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. How far this is from the passive reaction taught by the church.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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December 2021



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory